01/17/2011 at 01:00 AM EST
Growing up on a Texas farm, Cindy Williams had two cats, plus a mutt who followed her home from school. She'd have had more, but every time a stray caught her eye, the former Laverne & Shirley star recalls, "my mother would say, 'Look away.'" She remained an animal lover; she shares her L.A. home with three dogs and a cat, all rescues. So when Williams, 63, took a role in an Overland Park, Kans., revival of Sylvia, A. R. Gurney's play about a stray who comes between a husband and wife, she had an idea: "What if every night we came out with a different dog and pleaded his case with the audience?" Her director agreed, and now after curtain calls, Williams introduces a dog from the Animal Haven shelter.
"I had tears in my eyes," says theatergoer Lori Howard, 33, who adopted a Pincher-Chihuahua mix she named Kai. So far 61 dogs presented onstage have found homes, and the cast hopes to place more before the run at New Theatre Restaurant ends Jan. 16. "This is my way," Williams says, "of taking care of all those beautiful little souls."